We have to admit that there’s nothing quite as cute and heartwarming as the head tilt of a dog. If you’ve ever wondered why dogs tilt their heads, the answer isn’t just to be cute, though; there are some behavioral (and maybe even physical) reasons for this action.
Our Tiki is a champion head tilter, cocking her head to one side when we speak in a high voice or when she hears some mysterious sound for the first time.
But just why do dogs tilt their heads? The reasons we’ve seen have ranged from behavioral to purely physical (as the dog tries to get a better view around her muzzle) to medical.
While we always accepted this as a cute behavior (probably reinforced by positive response and dog photos and cooing on our part), we wanted to get to the root of this mannerism. What causes this tilt—and is it something about which dog owners should sometimes be concerned?
Most Common Medical Reason for Head Tilting
“Medically, there are many reasons dogs tilt their heads,” explained Eva Evans, DVN, an emergency and critical care doctor at Nashville Pet Emergency Clinic in Nashville, TN.
“Most commonly, it is due to an ear infection. Ear infections (also known as otitis) can cause pain and discomfort, so owners may notice their dog is shaking its head more, scratching at the ears, and may hold one ear higher or lower than normal. Often the only subtle sign of an early infection is a head tilt.”
We can definitely relate to this type of head tilting, one we observed in our Irie on several occasions. Her long Hound ears were susceptible to ear infections, and, at times, she flapped and then tilted her head.
Unlike Tiki’s head tilt resulting from a sudden sound, Irie’s head tilt was been accompanied by flapping and often scratching.
More Serious Medical Problems Can Cause Head Tilting
Head tilts can also be a sign of far more serious problems. Years ago, our cat KitKat began walking in circles, a sign that was first misdiagnosed as behavioral then, after testing, was identified as a symptom of a brain tumor. KitKat (who went on to have the tumor removed and lived several more happy, healthy years) was exhibiting a head tilting sign that is also seen in dogs.
Dr. Evans explained, “More serious causes of head tilts are often associated with the neurologic system and the brain. Brain tumors and nerve disease can cause head tilts, and sometimes these dogs will also walk in circles only in one direction as a result of ‘following their nose’ which is tilted in one direction or the other.”
Another potential concern, Dr, Evans noted, is that a dog that has ingested drugs or toxins may display this head tilt as well.
How can you know if the head tilt is a serious matter? The Nashville vet notes, “Medically speaking, the higher the degree of the tilt, the more serious the problem is.”
And, as with so many changes in any behavior in our pets, she recommends, “Anytime an owner notices that their dog has a head tilt that doesn’t go away immediately when the dog focuses on something new, they should have their dog seen by a veterinarian, as this is indication of a potentially serious disease.”
Behavioral Reasons for Head Tilting
Of course, head tilting is most often nothing to worry about, and Dr. Evans says, “If your dog tilts his head when he hears a strange noise, but then goes back to normal, this is just normal behavior.”
For all the medical complexity potentially behind the head tilt, behavioral reasons can be varied as well.
Linda Bender, DVM, author of Animal Wisdom: Learning from the Spiritual Lives of Animals, recommends that a medical explanation should be ruled out first but then notes, “My opinion is they tilt when something external causes them to really focus in on something, fine tune the senses, what humans might think of as ‘single pointed focus.’”
At our house, watching Tiki tilt her head as she listens and strains to identify a sound’s source, we definitely see that focus. Dr. Bender says if we could assign words to our dog’s head tilting action, it would be “I’m not sure exactly what is going on but, you have my full attention.”
Trying to Understand
According to human and canine body language expert Patti Wood, another potential behavioral explanation for the head tilt is as “a signal of submission, ‘I don’t understand what you want, Pet Parent.’ This signal is tied to their desire to understand what you, their pet parent, desire. When compared with other animals, dogs’ ability to ‘read’ humans is highly accurate. Dogs try very hard to figure out what we want and please us.”
While our dogs can understand bits and pieces of our human language, most of it is just a fuzzy blur to them–much like when we hear a foreign language.
So while dogs often can’t comprehend what we’re saying, they’re very good at observing and becoming familiar with our tone of voice, body language and eye movement.
Taking In Every Sound
When your dog notices something of interest, his ears perk up to catch all the sounds. If the sound comes from in front of your dog, he might tilt his head in the direction of the sound.
However, if the sound is coming from one side of him, there may not be any head tilting because his ears are already in the perfect spot to pick up the sounds.
A dog’s ear shape and position will also impact how the dog perceives sound and how often you might see a head tilt. A German Shepherd with prick ears might hear better from the front than a Cocker Spaniel who would hear better from the side.
Whether Tiki is trying to please us or focus in on what she hears or sees, one thing’s for certain: the head tilt, with its many varied explanations, is one that just might cause us to tilt our heads in wonder as well.